Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Clash of Civilizations

What are you going to do with a book that has no argument in it? I assume I can call it a My Bit Fat Statement. And then what do you do with a Big Fat Statement? I assume we can make a movie out of it and call it “My Big Fat Statement.” I thought about it but it did not work. The book did not have any visual potential. I discussed it with few others and we decided to dismiss it, but how do you dismiss a big fat statement by a Harvard professor? A biologist would say never leave a single cell or bacteria in an environment in which it breeds very rapidly. If not as a thinker or scholar, as a green peace advocate I feel oblige to give some response to it. I am talking about Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations.

The book is about 321 pages and contains absolutely no arguments. Statement follows statement, datum follows datum. We go from the fishing industry in Alaska t to a Buddhist monastery in Burma. Who would ever go over those facts and figures? What would they prove? That they are wrong? The book talks about everything and nothing simultaneously in pursue of vanity, but the Harvard stamp entices me to go after it.

With a great effort I managed to come up with a few semi-arguments:

  1. Originally there were twelve civilizations. (I assume the rest have been eliminated in the battlefield of civilizations.) Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Cretan, Classical Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Middle American, Andean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Islamic, and Western.
  2. The first seven are dead
  3. Last five are surviving.
  4. At present, they are reduce to four.(Some combine Chinese and Japanese together as Far Eastern civilization, and some do not include Japanese at all.)
  5. All these civilizations are somehow based on religions. (Christianity, Islam Hinduism, and Confucianism)
  6. Since there are differences among them, there must be an everlasting clashes between them.
  7. At the present time, the immediate clash is between Islam and Western, or Christian, culture.
  8. If the West eliminates Islam, then it would be down to the West and China.
  9. As a result of clashes among the Civilizations, their number is reduced to fewer and fewer.

Does Huntington want to conclude that the surviving is the fittest? Not at all. He thinks the surviving is the one which must be the fittest, the one with the greatest will to survive, yet does not accept Darwinism. In the chapter on shifting the balance, he argues that Islamic fundamentalism is taking over, at least partially, because the West has neglected its aims and has become sluggish in fighting for its interests. The West must be the fittest. Why? Just like that!

Considering religion as a core of civilization is an outright error. Unfortunately one cannot argue on this issue with Huntington. He very conveniently has put aside whatever contradicts his theory. For example, pre-Islamic Iran is not even considered among the dead civilizations so one cannot argue that Iran at its peak of civilization, namely the Sasanian period for three centuries, as the greatest empire on earth, did not enjoy one unified religion. It was such a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious empire that people in the west of the country could hardly know the language and customs of the people in its east. Probably that was one of the most important reasons of the fall of the Sassanid Empire after the Arab invasion.

Here is another case of how he cherry-picks his examples to fit his theory. Rather than discuss India’s Gandhi, Huntington prefers to talk about Pakistan’s Jenna. He argues that Pakistan became independent as a result of a clash of civilizations among a bigger civilization based on religions, knowing full well that Jinnah was a secular man and used religion as a mere tool to justify his cause (his own wife was not Moslem). So even though Pakistan and India’s clash appeared to be based on religious, we all know it was not and religion was artificially introduced into it.

Sometimes Hungtington is flat-out wrong, as when he refers to Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia and says that Iran supported Azerbaijan because of their shared religion. The Islamic Republic supported the Armenians due to Azerbaijani’s agitation inside Iran.

Huntington uses the same methodology when using the data. The strongest argument he presents in the book is the relation between population growth in a civilization as a sign of its cultural hegemony. He gave various data to illustrate his point, but again, each data could be answered with a counterexample. When he tries to tie the powerful and influential to the religion or population numbers of that religion, the counter-examples repudiate his arguments and he ignores them. (In all the cases anywhere in the world the number of secular people grows much faster.)

Another argument Huntington gives to support his theory is that big civilizations either vanish or fall apart due to the clash between their minor civilizations. For this there are two sets of counter-evidence. One is historical. The big civilizations were not created as big. They become big by being taken over each others or by joining each other. One civilization defeats the other one and grows at its expense, or one allies with the other through dynastic marriage or for joint defense against a common enemy. In all these cases there is a primal resistance which leads to eventual tolerance. The adjustment of one civilization to the other is not caused always due to the superiority the superiority of one over the other. For example, when Iran was taken over by the Mongols, it was the Mongols who converted to Islam and not the other way around. Even when the Arabs defeated Iran, Islam up to a great extend became Zoroastrianized to be palatable to the Iranians and Shiism was born. Another good example is the victory of Greece over Iran and the period ruling of Parthian which resulted in which the birth of various Zoroastrian sects and the adoption of some pagan gods into the Zoroastrian circle of archangels, which persist up to today. Above all was the entering of Greek philosophy into Iranian culture as well as the influence of Iranian dualism into Western culture. A superior and victorious culture might very well be affected by the minor and defeated one.

Another counter-argument to Huntington is the fact that the collapse of big civilization is often simply due their size. Roman, Sasanian, and Soviet Russian are all examples of big civilization yielding to the natural and unavoidable rule of oversized unmanagble scale beyond the means and the power of the governments of their time, which were therefore bound to collapse.

In his chapter titled “The Global Politics of Civilization,” Huntington argues, “Civilizations are the ultimate human tribes, and the clash of civilization is tribal conflict on a global scale. In the emerging world, states and groups from two different civilization may form limited, ad hoc, tactical connections and coalitions to advance their interest against entities from a third civilization or for other shared purposes. Relations between groups from different civilizations however will be almost never close, usually cool, and often hostile.”

This repeated thesis of Huntington is neither based on any established theory nor is it supported by any relevant data or evidence. He repeats again and again that wars and conflicts are the results of differences in the values and culture. There might be validity to his argument if we consider a very broad concept of value and culture. For example, the desire for independence is a value and like everything else (for example, taste in music) could be part of the value system of that civilization. But is it not shared by other civilizations? Is it not desired by any country, Moslem or Christian? Once again Huntington insinuates his thesis as a theory which does not need to be proven by any means.

Another way to understand Huntington is to define civilization simply as a set of structural systems devoid of any content or meanings, i.e. the physical aspects of nation, population, military powers and economical means. In that case, when there is a disagreement, a clash is unavoidable. However it remains to be proved that if we could define the civilization as such.

Huntington’s aim in writing this book is clearly to provide a justification for United States military aggression towards other nations with economical resources which incidentally at this particular period happen to be Islamic countries (Iraq and Afghanistan). These two wars took place independent of any reason or justification, just like Huntington’s theory. Otherwise our generation can recall almost all the conflicts, uprisings, and revolutions which have taken place at least in last fifty years to have been geared to the conflict between modernism and repression which tried to either exploit the nation or keep it backwards. The progressive nature of these struggles, successful or not, contradicts all of Huntington’s claims. The greatest conflicts of our age were

  1. Iran as the greatest and the last revolution of the twentieth century. In spite of its Islamic form, it was an anti-imperialist revolution and a massive protest against an undemocratic semi-military state which was brought into power not by the will of people but by an American coup. The degree of it success or its failure remains to be seen. But present trends indicate that it is precisely its Islamic aspect which will bring it down eventually.
  2. South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement was not a religious movement. It was a racial movement and by and large was a successful one.
  3. The Soviet Union’s disintegration was not a religious uprising in spite of the Huntington’s claim that Moslem portion of its population was high. Moreover, none of its Moslem successor states appealed to religion for its independence and none of them have any sort of state-established Islamic institutions, let alone an Islamic government.
  4. World War II though was so racially motivated hardly could be called a clash between religious civilizations.
  5. In the twentieth century, there have been a plethora of conflicts between nations with the same religion, e.g. the Sunni Kurds and the Sunni Iraqi and Turkish states, the Sunni Taliban and other Sunni Afghan factions, to counter Huntington’s claim that conflicts are always a clash of civilizations or cultural values. Most conflicts are simply over access to the means of progress or wars of independence.
    Moreover, reducing a civilization to religion and religion to its apparatus and ritual, leads Huntington to see nothing but the clash among them. There is no civilization, big or small, which does not include a philosophical or ideological underpinning beneath the surface of all its practical means of productions, economic and political systems or even arts and sciences. In any conflicts among the nations, all these apparatuses might become subdued but the philosophy and ideas which are axiomatic in that culture enjoy the freedom to be only enriched further either by being influenced or influencing others.

    Sayyed Mohammad Khatami, the head of the Institute of the Dialogue among Civilizations, challenges Huntington’s argument. He believes that even a religion, significant as it might be, is only one aspect of civilization. In his book Philosophy and Thoughts Held Captive by Ruling Forces, he says, that “political powers might employ religion and use it to advance their aims without even being interested in the religion. What they use is in fact the superficial and structural aspect of the religion which they can use as any other institution to promote their needs and desires.” He claims that civilization as well as religion has two aspects, the structural and philosophical and the inspirational aspect. While the structural aspects might be used in various manners to pursue various purposes, the inspirational and philosophical aspects are immune from abuse and are the only developing and flourishing part of the civilizations and cultures.

    The problem of Khatami’s argument is the other side of the Huntington’s problem. Where Huntington fails to see the philosophical and inspirational aspect of religion and civilizations, Khatami ignores the power of all the practical and pragmatic necessity which is required for a civilization to survive. Oddly enough, his personal and professional experiences as a two term president of Iran in a very turbulent time has not allowed him to realize that his idea of a peaceful dialogue among civilizations even as a way out of the most trivial problems fails when it faces any reality. Even within his own country, even among the same civilization and culture, the dialogue has never worked.

    With all our interest in a peaceful solution to the various problems and the unwanted wars and man-made troubles all over the world, it is difficult to embrace Khatami’s well-intentioned proposals of the dialogues among the nations fully. His theory is unpragmatic and impractical.

    Khatami tries to make up for its lack of impracticality by advocating civil society and the rule of laws. Unfortunately, this solution has the same defect as the original dialogue solution. Two terms of the United States Presidential elections and the subsequence frauds and other scandals show that even in a democratic society the rule of law is not infallible. Our two theories fail to provide a meaningful explanation or solution to the problems that they trying because of their overly-ambitious scope. Talking about a grandiose subject such as Islam or Chinese civilization is so beyond the scope of our imagination and control that one tends to dismiss it. Dividing the world into four segments and using this to analyze war and peace would definitely not make it easy for a scientific approach. Science fiction might have a better chance.


Anonymous said...
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Naj said...

Pleased to find you! Off to my blogroll you go! Best; Naj